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Sonic Stone

Dec 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

Supervising Sound Editor Wylie Stateman On Oliver Stone's Alexander.

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It somehow seems appropriate that the crew that worked on Oliver Stone's latest film, Alexander, comprised professionals from many countries — after all, the youthful subject of the film conquered much of the known world in the fourth century B.C. and established an empire that stretched from the Mediterranean to India. The film was shot in the UK, Morocco, and Thailand. It was produced by Germans, Americans, and a Scot. It was shot by a Mexican cinematographer. The production designer was Dutch. The film composer was Greek. The sound crew was mostly French, but included a Belgian and two British re-recording mixers, a Japanese-French sound designer, a German-French dialogue editor, and one French and one American supervising sound editor. Most of the postproduction sound work was done in Paris. ADR and the final mix, however, were done in London.

Stone is no stranger to historical dramas: he directed JFK, Nixon, Salvador, and his remarkable Vietnam trilogy — Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Heaven and Earth. But Alexander marks the director's first foray outside of the modern era, and he's never made a film of such size and scope before — Alexander cost about $150 million to make, and it involved the proverbial cast of thousands. The ancient epic story got the modern epic treatment.

“Oliver's presence as a writer, director, and producer has been very consistent through the years,” says supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman, the two-time Academy Award nominee who has worked on all of Stone's films since Wall Street in 1987, 12 in all. “He's a very focused filmmaker who's very hands-on. His films all reflect his sensibility and his sense of cinema, and that is to bring to the audience something that is always quite thought-provoking, with graphic images that are very intentional. His films are intense exercises in storytelling and in intellectual and physical preparation. He's always challenging the people he works with, whether it's a 24-hour day or a discussion about the motivation of a lead character as it relates to sound.”

Stateman says that his own role early in the making of Alexander was mainly as a consultant. He knows the types of things Stone likes and doesn't like sonically, so he was able to share the director's inclinations with sound designer Ken Yasumoto and the other sound editors. Interestingly, the film Stateman had worked on right before Alexander was another sword and sandal epic, Troy. “Every film is a fresh canvas; that's how I see it,” Stateman says. “There was very little, if anything, that was borrowed from Troy for Alexander, and I mean that. Still, you learn things about blending sounds on every film that you carry with you as part of your repertoire and body of knowledge and experience.”

Speaking more generally about working with Stone, Stateman adds, “My approach with Oliver is always to first intellectualize and then organize the material. Intellectually, you have to take into account the story and the ebb and flow of the action and the intention that Oliver has as a filmmaker in presenting both the drama and the action. His films are very dense with information, and intellectually you have to choose a path that you want to take the audience on, and by choosing one path you're ignoring other paths. So you first intellectually design the [sound] track, and then you have to organize the material because his films are visually very frenetic, and having too much sound material is a problem. Of course there are always pressures in terms of time and financial resources, so your plan has to take into account those two very important items. And they're very important to Oliver as well. He's making films that have to be responsibly budgeted and delivered in a predetermined time period.

“Then there's the execution phase — and execution might be a good word for it because it's a real physical challenge to keep pace with him,” Stateman says with a chuckle. “So during that phase I have to be very strategic as a supervising sound editor in how I coordinate and deploy the talents of the sound editorial crew. We had a very talented international sound crew working on dialogue, sound effects, background sounds, battle sounds, Foley sounds, ADR, all the various aspects of sound preparation.”

The bulk of the post work was done in Paris at Les Auditoriums de Boulogne, a four-year-old studio complex that is equipped variously with AMS Neve DFC consoles and, in the Foley/ADR studios, AMS Neve Libra systems and a number of different digital workstation possibilities. “Most of the effects were recorded on portable disk recorders, the …clair or DAT, and the [sound] editing was mostly done in Pro Tools, although some was also done on Pyramix, which is popular in France,” Stateman says. “Jean Goudier, who was a supervising sound editor and was very involved in all the work being done there, worked with both Pro Tools and Pyramix. Most of my work was done on the dubbing stage, which had a DFC.” The final mix was done at De Lane Lea Studios in London, also on a DFC.

The film employed several top rerecording mixers: Vincent Arnardi (Oscar-nominated for his work on the French film Amélie three years ago); Bruno Tarrière (Cesar Award winner for The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc); Chris David (Oscar-nominated for 1994's Legends of the Fall); Paul Massey (an Oscar nominee last year for Master and Commander and for two earlier films); and Belgian sound veteran Alek Goosse. Katia Boutin was the supervising dialogue editor; Iain Eyre, Greg Steele, and Chris Fitzgerald worked on the ADR; and Jean-Paul Mugel was the production sound mixer.

Stateman says that working with sound personnel from different countries was not a problem. “[Everyone was dealing with] the universal language of sound, which is noise, music, sound effects. Even dialogue, to a certain extent, is treated the same in Paris as it is in London and Los Angeles and New York. It was a very technically savvy international crew.

“Oliver encourages people to think and to demonstrate their thoughts with as much passion and as much clarity as possible. He allows people the freedom to experiment and express themselves. He's a filmmaker who relies on highly creative people to bring their contributions to the process. He's quite demanding in that regard, but he provides each department with incredible opportunities to express a contribution to the work, but then the work is refined and perfected with his participation.”

Supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman has worked on 12 of Oliver Stone's films since 1987.

For Stateman, the greatest sound challenges came in mixing the huge, elaborately choreographed battle scenes, particularly the opening at Gaugamela (where Alexander defeated the Persian emperor Darius) and the final conflict in the jungles of India. “There were just so many elements to deal with,” he says. “For the battle in India, which was shot in Thailand, in part because there's still a good elephant population there, you're in the jungle, and you have Greek cavalry on horseback and the Indian army on foot and on elephant, and creating the size differential between elephants and horses and between the two charging armies was quite a different sonic challenge than the battle of Gaugamela, which took place on a desert plain.

“Throughout the movie, there are a large number of sound design moments. Jean Goudier developed a sound design element called musique concrete, which involved collage layering of mostly organic sounds — they're blended to produce emotion rather than being something you would hard-synch to a spear or a cart or a door. [The creator of musique concrete, in the mid-1900s, was French composer Pierre Schaeffer.] There's a cave scene where a lot of the emotional history of Greek mythology is expressed in musique concrete, and there are also a few dancing scenes and party scenes where there's musique concrete. Basically, the sound effects have been turned into non-synchronous sound, so they blend and spread behind the scene more like music than sound effects and having its color represent the mood of the scene, also the way music does.”

Mixing the battle scenes in Alexander was a challenge because of the multiple elements—and animals—involved.

Stateman says that the music — written by the Greek composer Vangelis, who's best known for his Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire — plays an extremely important role in the film. “[Vangelis] was very successful at capturing the pride of the Greeks and the very specific, triumphant and tension-filled moments of the different battles. We were getting Vangelis music from early in the postproduction process, and he did a marvelous job keeping up with Oliver intellectually and physically. It's a very orchestral score with a lot of choir. Frederick Rousseau was the music editor and music producer, and he's a composer in his own right.

“My hat is off to Oliver for always finding people to invest themselves in his films. He affords the creative teams that he works with tremendous latitude to present him with ideas and examples of those ideas. He's very generous as a filmmaker in allowing people to contribute to his films.

“At the end of the day, Oliver is Alexander,” Stateman adds with a laugh. “He's great, and if allowed, he would conquer the world, given enough time.”

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